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The Darkness Before the Dawn
Nick Cushing's nightmarish start as interim manager had NYCFC in a nosedive. Kevin Nelson investigates what went wrong, who's to blame, and what the implications are for the playoffs.
It is always darkest before the dawn.
That proverb encapsulates Nick Cushing’s brief tenure as New York City Football Club’s head coach perfectly and oh boy, it's been dark as hell.
Across an excruciating two-month stretch from July into September, NYCFC were last in Major League Soccer in points. The true nadir was the week of September 7th, when Cushing lashed out during a post-game press conference after a draw versus FC Cincinnati. It was immediately compounded by a showcase of offensive ineptitude despite playing up a man for nearly an entire half in a loss against Charlotte FC.
Providentially for the Pigeons, Cushing found his dawn the following week. His tactical revisions pushed NYCFC to a Campeones Cup trophy and a cathartic victory in the Hudson River Derby. Those victories, along with the playoff-clinching win against Orlando City, have inspired hope that NYCFC could regain the quality that made them one of MLS’ most formidable teams through the first half of this season.
But it was the need for rediscovery that has raised questions about Cushing’s acumen. However, assigning blame to Cushing or any coach for a prolonged poor run of results is an inexact science. It requires first disentangling the many factors that a manager can’t control before evaluating those he can.
While it is premature to attest for his managerial quality just yet, Cushing has largely been a victim of circumstance as NYCFC head coach. Those factors most certainly out of his control have gone so poorly they could reasonably overwhelm any positive contribution Cushing may have provided.
The fluctuations of expected goal (xG)performance has not been kind to Cushing. From his appointment as interim head coach through the Charlotte loss, Cushing’s NYCFC has underperformed their expected goal differential (xGD) by 10.47 goals.1 Misfortunate swings to that magnitude are not unprecedented in soccer across small sample sizes, but the discrepancy between NYCFC’s underlying performance and results is still the lowest in team history. The ebb and flow of soccer justice will eventually direct this oscillation back towards the expected outcome, but that process is predicated on time, something Cushing doesn’t have a lot of.
It’s worth noting that NYCFC’s underperformance is not due to their own finishing. Their post-shot xG (PSxG) per shot on target, a metric that measures the likelihood a shot will go in once it has been taken, and shot-on-target percentage have remained relatively stable from Deila to Cushing.
It is in fact shotstopping that has played more into this trend. Sean Johnson has had the worst statistical stretch of his career under Cushing, conceding 4.88 more goals than expected across a three-month stretch. To put that in perspective, Johnson had allowed 8.4 less goals than expected in his combined previous 9+ seasons.
Now, that isn’t to say that Johnson has suddenly forgotten how to play the game. He is still a very good goalkeeper who is himself subject of a bad stretch during a small sample size. Plus, it’s probably not his fault that Thiago Martins passed one of those goals directly into his own net.
NYCFC’s opponents have done their fair share in building up that gruesome GD-xGD, though their contribution lies more in shot finishing than shot stopping. NYCFC is allowing the same amount of expected goals under Cushing as they did Deila, but their opponents have improved their PSxG per shot to well above league average.
The proportion of shots that end up on frame has been the primary driver of this trend. Under Deila, NYCFC opposition put 28.2% of their shots on target. That number has ballooned to 37.4% under Cushing and we can all agree that shots on target typically go in more than ones that miss the frame.
The absences have been concentrated in the defensive unit, with extended time missed from primary defensive midfielders Keaton Parks and Alfredo Morales as well as all top center backs Alexander Callens, Thiago Martins, and Maxime Chanot. Five of the six core members of the defensive spine missed more than 30% of games managed by Cushing, forcing him to cobble together a lineup from the remaining fragments of his roster.
That desperation has seen an increased dependence on Justin Haak in the double pivot, the return of Tayvon Gray to his academy role of center back, and the confirmation of Vuk Latinovich’s existence. Keep that injury record in mind when considering the things that Cushing can control. Castellanos obviously is not missing time due to injury, but the team’s decision to not replace in him season has functionally made his absence all the same.
The major change from Deila to Cushing has been in the high pressure rate. Simply by watching their matches, it is clear to the naked eye that NYCFC are pressing upfield with significantly less frequency and aggression. That is not unsurprising given the loss of Castellanos, perhaps the best pressing forward MLS has had in the last decade.
What makes the trend interesting is that Cushing had access to Taty for his first six weeks, yet the decrease in pressure started well before his departure for Spain. It was the worst kept secret in the league that Castellanos wasn’t long for MLS when Cushing took over, so perhaps his immediate gear down was in preparation for life in a post-Taty world.
Nevertheless, it is still surprising how much Cushing disengaged the press. NYCFC’s drop in opponent touches per defensive action in the attacking and middle third has cratered to a stunning degree based on team history.
A drop off as precipitous as that is hard to pin solely on the loss of Castellanos, even for how good he is defensively. In the admittedly small sample size of Castellanos-less games since Taty became the first-choice striker after Heber’s knee injury in 2020, NYCFC still maintained a robust appetite for upfield pressure. You can argue that a coach is less inclined to make tactical changes for the one-off absences that make up that sample, rather than a multi-month stretch without your best presser. Even so, NYCFC have never pressed this little under any of the previous three coaches, two of whom never had the luxury of Taty up top.
It’s also unlikely that a more reserved defense is a fundamental belief of Cushing’s coach philosophy. According to FBref, his Manchester City team led the Women’s Super League (WSL) in opponent touches per defensive actions (OPTDA) in the attacking third, a metric used to quantify defensive pressure, in his last season and a half there. He has been bred as coach within City Football Group since 2008 and not getting after an opponent backline feels antithetical to the broader CFG ethos.
The logical next conclusion to Cushing’s decision to no longer be a pressing team must be personnel-based then. But it’s not just Taty, it’s the cumulative impact of the aforementioned injuries to the defensive spine in some iteration almost since Cushing took the job. And that affects both sides of the ball.
The defensive triggers start with the forwards but pressing is a team effort at its core. Without Taty and a noticeable slowdown from Maxi Moralez, the frontline are less effective at stifling opponents as they build out from the back. More passes progress into midfield as a result where there is less quality to get on the front foot to shut down receptions. Opposition buildup now more frequently bypasses two lines of NYCFC defense, where a patchwork backline is less equipped to clean up in isolation. Each level of that defensive framework has been depleted by absence or injury, tipping the balance too heavily toward danger in the risk-reward of pressing.
Despite Cushing’s best efforts to maintain the attacking style status quo, a diminished capacity to maintain possession in and keep the game in the final third added to the drop-off as well. Field tilt, a measurement of a team’s proportion of attacking third touches, hit a low in Cushing’s second month in charge, coinciding with Keaton Park’s injury. Less time spent in the attacking third presented less opportunities for the counterpressure NYCFC has historically been lethal at applying.
Even before NYCFC dragged themselves out of their quagmire, signs of hope emerged as their offensive splits recovered to previous standards in September. As Cushing converged on his best lineup with Talles Magno settling at the No. 9 to allow both Santiago Rodriguez and Gabriel Pereira to start on the wings, the Pigeons began to look like the attacking force of old. The recovery comes in conjunction with the roster getting healthy and that combination offers Cushing the chance to put his foot back on the gas with high pressure.
What does all of this tell us about Cushing as a coach? His bad luck obscures judgment but his reaction to it suggests a more flexible pragmatist than his three predecessors. Patrick Vieira, Dome Torrent, and Ronny Deila were all more beholden to their tactical preferences, even if Cushing yearns to maintain their style of play. Diverging from an established identity in the name of pragmatism is debatable but there is evidence Cushing has the goods to continue NYCFC’s run of coaching hits in the post-Jason Kreis world.
Cushing deserves credit for rallying the squad through adversity. NYCFC has a +0.96 goals added differential from losing positions in 2022, the best single season mark in team history and the 10th-best in the entirety of the American Soccer Analysis database.3 That resilience has pushed NYCFC to a 6th-place ranking in non-penalty xG differential per game under Cushing, a reminder that even without Castellanos that this team remains a threat in the playoffs.
With the players responding, a healthy-ish roster and a home(?) playoff game clinched, the postseason is the perfect setting to make everyone forget about that nightmarish two months. For Nick Cushing, it’s also an opportunity to prove himself and recoup some credit for the good he’s already done.❧
Image: Peder Balke, The North Cape By Moonlight (1848)
DC United have actually suffered an even worse fate in the same period with their unconscionable -11.98 GD-xGD (pray for Wayne Rooney in his time of need).
Unless you’re someone like Hernan Losada who actively starves and/or runs the players into the ground – and there’s no evidence to suggest Cushing is the type – injuries are hardly attributable to a coach.
Database contains information from 2013-present.